Delta State University President Daniel Ennis met Thursday with the school’s marching band students in the wake of revelations that the recently hired band director had mocked trans people and agreed pro-LGBTQ+ religious leaders should be stoned on his now-deleted podcast.
During the 45-minute meeting, Ennis told students via Zoom from a conference in California that the comments in Steven Hugley’s podcast “Always Right” prompted several alumni and parents of students to reach out to him, but not any students. So he said he wanted to know what the roughly 30 students in the band who joined the call thought before taking an action that might affect them.
Ennis invited students to share any information with him that would help him “as an outsider” better understand the situation. He started as president of the regional college in Cleveland, a small town in the Mississippi Delta, earlier this summer after spending two decades at a university in South Carolina. (In a text to a Mississippi Today reporter after the meeting, Ennis said he was “fine” letting his comments speak in the Zoom meeting for themselves.)
“Certainly, I have to be clear, all decisions on a college campus are eventually the responsibility of the president,” Ennis said in the meeting. “It is my place to make sure that we’re doing the things we should be for our students.”
The Zoom seems to be just one step Ennis is taking to address the situation. Earlier this week, he personally sent a reminder asking administrators to refer media inquiries to the communications department to “support the university’s ability to speak with one voice regarding personnel and legal matters.”
The interim chair of the music department, Kent Wessinger, had spoken to Mississippi Today last week about Hugley’s hiring.
But the university has not publicly addressed the comments Hugley made on his podcast, which include gagging at a photo of a trans woman, repeatedly misgendering notable trans people and calling for transitioning — the process of changing one’s physical appearance to align with their gender identity — to be made illegal for trans adults. In Mississippi, lawmakers earlier this year banned gender-affirming care that results in trans minors medically transitioning.
“If you do, not only are we gonna lock you up, we’re also gonna lock up the doctor,” Hugley said in reference to parents who seek gender-affirming care for trans kids, “and then we take it the next step.”
Many students thought the Zoom, which was billed to them as a meeting “to discuss plans for the upcoming year,” would involve Ennis announcing some form of action. It did not. He said he first wanted to hear from students and talk to faculty in the music department when he got back to Cleveland.
Some wanted to know if the university was going to issue a comment, whether Hugley had been placed on administrative leave or what, if anything, the administration was going to do to make LGBTQ+ students feel comfortable participating in band. Others wanted to know if Ennis felt that Hugley would be able to keep his personal views out of the classroom.
When Ennis said he would not be answering questions like those during the meeting, some students were disappointed.
“I’ve called this session not to make any announcements,” he said. “I’ve called this session to get more information from you, so I will learn from you, your perspectives and thoughts on this, and when I get back to campus, I’ll have conversations with the leadership involved. But this will not be a session where you get news, announcements or anything like that regarding the marching band.”
“I believe there was a miscommunication in the email then,” Matthew Brewton, a senior music education major, replied in the comments.
Ennis also told the music students that he had not been able to watch or listen to Hugley’s podcast because the YouTube channel had been taken down. Hugley, the interim band director as of June 30, removed the videos after a Mississippi Today reporter contacted him last week.
“The item preexisted this individual’s hiring at Delta State so in other words, it was up before he was hired here, and now it’s down, so that’s different than if he put it up this week after he was appointed interim,” Ennis said.
“I don’t know if anybody here has seen it because it was pulled down really quickly as I understand it,” he added.
Multiple students replied in the Zoom comments that a Google Drive of the podcast’s YouTube videos had been widely circulated on campus, and Ennis responded by cautioning students who hadn’t heard the podcast not to listen if they thought it might upset them.
“Out of concern for you, given what we’ve just heard, there may be something hurtful in that link,” he said.
At that, one student commented it “speaks for itself” that Ennis felt the need to issue a content warning.
“I was making a cautionary comment,” Ennis said. “But anyway, I think that’s a good point. The fact that I had to think about how you would react is probably something — that’s why we’re having this conversation.”
Some students said they wanted to give Hugley a chance. They had met him and he was nice to them. They thought it would be okay for Hugley to remain interim band director so long as he didn’t discuss his political views during practice. They noted they were more concerned about the band having a director who could revitalize its statewide reputation, which, they said, is currently poor.
Not every student has “the same beliefs as the LGBTQ community,” said one student, who did not give their name on Zoom. They student added that “we need to be professionals, because we are going to grow up and be around other people in work business that do not agree with our lifestyles and how we live, but at the end of the day, the only thing that we can do is just move on.”
“If we need to be professional then why is Steven Hugley an exception? I do not think that his comments were very professional,” Brewton replied in a comment.
Ennis also suggested that he knew issues with the music department and the marching band went beyond Hugley’s hiring.
The door for Hugley’s hiring was opened earlier this year when Wessinger, the interim chair, removed the former longtime director of the band. Wessinger came to the department after the beloved former chair, Karen Fosheim, was killed. The Bolivar County Sheriff’s department charged Fosheims’ 14-year-old stepson with the crime.
Some students said they didn’t like how the former band director treated them, which heightened their worries about Hugley, because they had hoped the band would become more enjoyable with him. Participating in the band is required for some music majors at Delta State.
But there was one thing on which nearly every student who spoke up agreed. When Ennis asked if they were excited for the fall semester, almost everyone said “no.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.